CLEMSON – Dabo Swinney had seen enough – he had to turn off the tape.
“It wasn’t pretty,” he said, recalling last year’s 49-37 loss at Florida State. “They kind of had their way with us.”
All Clemson senior linebacker Spencer Shuey could do was chuckle at the effort looking back, where the Seminoles rolled up 667 yards.
Swinney: This is a special game
“It’s unbelievable to see how far we have come as a defense,” said Shuey. “We watched that and laughed at some of the mistakes we’ve made. It’s incredible to see how the guys have grown and understand their roles.
“It’s comforting going into this game.”
Under the lights again in Death Valley, the battle of prolific offenses – and Heisman contender quarterbacks Tajh Boyd and Jameis Winston – has taken center stage for the 8:22 kickoff, but an improved the Tigers’ defense – and around 80,000 in orange behind them – get a chance to change the conversation.
The contest is being billed as biggest game in ACC history, only the fourth matchup of top-five teams in the conference’s 60 years. National implications obviously factor in that status for No. 3 Clemson (6-0, 4-0 ACC) and No. 5 Florida State (5-0, 3-0), going into the first BCS standings on Sunday.
While offense grabs the highlights and sells the tickets, eight of the last 10 BCS Championship Game participants have had a top-12 scoring defense, which both the Seminoles (No. 3 – 12 points per game) and Tigers (No. 9 – 16.2 PPG) boast through seven weeks.
Clemson has held its last five opponents to 14 points or less, which hasn’t been topped in school history since 1989-90 (six games). Brent Venables’ defense leads the nation in third down defense, having allowed only 23 conversions in 97 attempts (23.7) and just 12 in four ACC games (18.4).
Maturation has unleashed the aggressive unit that paces the nation both in sacks (4 PG) and tackles for loss (10.2 PG).
“Guys are where they are supposed to be and have a good feel playing with high energy,” said Swinney, “and we are just much more experienced on that side of the ball than we’ve been in a while.”
The task is still no easier, if you ask Venables, facing this year’s version of the FSU offense.
“The playcalling is real similar, but I think their execution is better,” he said. “They’re more consistent. They have veterans everywhere. They’re playing like veterans across the board and the quarterback is playing out of his mind.”
Out of his mind indeed, the redshirt freshman Winston is second only to Clemson’s Boyd in the ACC in total offense (315.2 YPG), with 19 scores to two interceptions. He leads the ACC in yards per play (10.39; third nationally), while commanding the conference’s top offense (No. 4 nationally; 549 YPG)
“He plays older than he is,” Boyd said. “He handles himself in a more mature way when he steps out on the field.”
The Tigers’ veteran QB is as intrigued as anybody regarding Winston’s reaction to the frenzied environment to come.
“You never really know how it is until you actually step in that arena,” said Boyd. “I’m anxious to see how he handles it, but the coaches are going to prepare him as best as possible. At the end of the day, you really just have to go out there and make plays because regardless of what you did before, in a game like this you have to go out there and just be prepared.”
Tigers prepare for top-5 showdown
Winston’s maybe-too-honest thoughts on the Death Valley crowd and his game circled the Internet this week, but he does admit the atmosphere can shift momentum.
“All of noise stuff with how we communicate on the field, I don’t really think it’s going to be a big factor,” he said. “From a momentum standpoint if the crowd gets into it, their players start getting amped up. That’s going to be a big part of the game.”
The Clemson-FSU series has been as hotly-contested as any in the country the last decade.
In Memorial Stadium, Clemson has won the last five matchups, with one win in Tallahassee in the 10-year span (2006).
The game’s winner has punched its ticket for the ACC Championship Game the last four seasons – and taken the title the last two. Joining the ACC in 1992, the Seminoles won the first 11 conference matchups between the two.
“It’s become a rivalry, because it’s a very important Atlantic Division contest,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. “There’s no doubt. It is a rivalry because of the importance and how good both teams are. (When) you have a rivalry, it’s usually when both teams are very competitive and both teams have success and it will decide something, and this has definitely become that.”
Outside of home field, Tiger receiver Sammy Watkins says Clemson has the edge in having dealt with the national spotlight and a down-to-the-wire nailbiter already for the Georgia opener.
‘That’s the biggest factor in this game,” Watkins said. “We’ve been through a tough game. I don’t think they’ve faced adversity with any team. I’m pretty sure they’ll come ready to play, but this atmosphere is going to be crazy with our fans. Knowing that a lot is at stake, I don’t think they’ve been in a fourth-quarter game yet.
“This is game is really going to come down to being in those tough situations.”
The Clemson crowd is taking its reputation to another level Saturday, attempting to break the outdoor-stadium, Guinness World Record for noise. The mark was set just last week at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium (137.5 decibels).
“That’s good,” Swinney said. “Hopefully we can have one more point than Florida State and one more decibel than Kansas City and it’ll be a good day for the Tigers.”